Howard gives ground on the roots of crime: Failures in society 'create conditions for lawbreaking'
But the apparent softening in tone of Mr Howard's comments were seized on by Labour as implicitly backing a connection between social and economic opportunities and offending.
In a political speech to the Institute of Directors, the Home Secretary re-emphasised the 'responsibility for every individual for his actions' and that 'failures in the home, at school and in society at large do not cause crime in the sense that sunshine melts snow'.
But he added: 'Clearly these failures do create conditions in which crime and lawbreaking can survive.'
On whether the same applied to unemployment, he said: 'Far from taking a dogmatic view of this question, I am content to look at the evidence.' There was no specific evidence 'directly' linking rising unemployment to rising crime, 'though from the United States there is evidence that previous offenders who get jobs are less likely to offend in future'.
Mr Howard's remarks came as John Major told the Commons at Prime Minister's questions that the causes of crime were 'many and varied' - and that everyone in authority should be prepared to take responsibility for tackling it.
Whitehall sources emphasised yesterday that Mr Howard had confined his remarks to people who had already offended, saying in the speech: 'The fact that an offender has been able to get a job may show that his attitude has changed, and once in employment he may find it easier - and more worthwhile - to stay out of trouble in future.
'But arguing that unemployment leads inexorably to crime makes much less sense.'
Tony Blair, shadow Home Secretary, said: 'Michael Howard now appears to be in an increasing muddle over the issue of whether crime is linked to unemployment. 'Of course, no one has ever suggested that anyone who is unemployed immediately becomes a criminal or that the link is 'inexorable' in every case. But if those who have already offended are less likely to re-offend if they get work, surely it stands to reason that the availability of work and opportunity must have some impact on whether people offend in the first place.'
Mr Blair cited a statement by Mr Howard on 10 November last year which said: 'We should have no truck with trendy theories that try to explain away crime by blaming socio-economic factors.'
The Home Secretary also used his speech to flag up his Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, urging businessmen and women to seek appointments on new-style police authorities.
Later, during the Bill's Commons Second Reading, he singled out only one - the 'wrongly so-called 'double jeopardy' clause' - of a possible three Lords amendments for substantive reversal. The amendment would have outlawed disciplinary proceedings against any officer acquitted in the criminal courts.
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